Sunday, October 31, 2004

A humpback whale jumps out of the waters off Hawaii. The presence of thrillcraft near whales has raised some concern.

Debate goes on
over thrillcraft
effect on whales

A July ruling limited a seasonal
ban along a coastline on Maui

LAHAINA » As Hawaii enters the whale migration season, the state law that banned thrillcraft from Dec. 15 through May 15 along a Maui coastline where whales gather has been severely wounded.

U.S. District Judge Susan Mollway in July ruled the seasonal ban violates federal law because states aren't permitted to take actions independent of the U.S. government when dealing with protected marine mammals, including humpback whales.

Charter captain Thomas Miller agrees with the court ruling.

"They do it on other islands. I think it's a good thing they got to operate. People got to make a living," said Miller, whose six fishing passengers were "stoked" to see a humpback whale in waters off west Maui last week, the first reported sighting of the migration season.

The state Attorney General's Office is appealing Mollway's decision, but has instructed state enforcement officers not to halt parasailing in Maui waters during whale migration season, as had been done since the thrillcraft ban was enacted in 1991.

Deputy Attorney General William Wynhoff said his office hasn't decided on whether Mollway's ruling applies to other thrillcraft, such as Jet Skis.

Meanwhile, at the request of state Sen. Rosalyn Baker (D, Honokohau-Makena), U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye has introduced a provision in a commerce appropriations bill that would give the states the flexibility to enact more stringent marine mammal protection legislation than federal law.

Under federal rules, a vessel is not able to approach within 100 yards of a humpback whale.

Within the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, there are also federal provisions against pollution discharges and altering the seabed.

But critics point out there are no federal rules to reduce the noise or speed of thrillcraft and vessels.

Richard Roshon, who has been a kayaker in Maui waters for 30 years, said he's seen how the noise of thrillcraft and fast boats disturb humpback whales and forces them away from coastal waters.

Roshon said he felt the noise also created a bad environment for the humpbacks near coastal reefs where the females rear the young before the return trip to Alaska.

Greg VanderLaan of UFO Chuting of Hawaii, the business that brought the lawsuit against the ban, said he feels parasailing has been singled out unfairly.

VanderLaan said his boats, which operate in Kaanapali and also on the Big Island, travel at less than 20 knots, or about 23 mph.

VanderLaan said if the Inouye provision passes, the state will have to revisit the issue of explaining what the difference is between his boats and other vessels traveling at the same speed.

"Hopefully, there will be some science brought into the mix here," he said.

Pacific Whale Foundation President Greg Kaufman said he believes the best way to protect the whales is to regulate the speed of all vessels in sanctuary waters during the migration season.

Kaufman, whose nonprofit foundation organizes whale-watching tours, said the vessel speed would be 15 knots or 17.2 mph or less within waters four miles from shore and up to 20 knots or 23 mph in the remaining sanctuary waters.

Naomi McIntosh, the sanctuary's statewide manager, said she worries about the use of Jet Skis because they have the ability to turn quickly in the water and offer less predictability in direction for whales.

McIntosh said people need to also keep in mind their own safety.

Sanctuary officials worry about whale-vessel collisions as the number of humpback whales increase in numbers from between 1,200 to 1,400 in the 1960s to estimates as high as 10,000.

Last year on Christmas Day, 3-year-old Ryker David-Lee Hamilton of Norfolk, Va., died after striking his head on a boat railing during a whale-watching cruise. The Coast Guard said the captain was distracted with the public address system when the boat collided with a humpback whale.

A man was knocked unconscious Jan. 5 when his 18-foot fishing boat collided with a humpback off Kahului Harbor. After regaining consciousness, he brought his boat into the harbor and was treated for cuts on his head.

A whale-ship collision was reported Feb. 8 off Puamana in West Maui.



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